The Rise of the Internet ‘Mitigators’

After all, who would march under the banner ‘On the one hand, X, on the other hand, maybe not X’?

A couple of years ago, a thoughtful technologist I was talking to said something that has really stuck with me:

You know, I’m not actually sure that, over time, the internet will be viewed as a net-net good thing for the world.

I love how this simple statement captures the uncertainty of a person who is fully aware that the digital age has brought extraordinary dishes to the restaurant-table of humanity, but who is nervous both that the menu doesn’t appear to contain any prices, and the server is being alarmingly vague about what payment methods will be accepted at the end of the night.

I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons implied in this quote a lot recently. Doing so, it has occurred to me that while most thoughtful people can easily hold elements of optimism and caution in their heads at the same time, most social-impact organizations cannot, constitutionally, be so even-handed.

The pressures innate to social-impact organizations of any kind mean that they cannot adopt positions that are too ambiguous. After all, who would march under the banner ‘On the one hand, X, on the other hand, maybe not X’?

The tech scene is not immune to this pressure, and so over the last two decades organizations have self-sorted themselves into two broad camps. The first camp contains those organizations which are primarily concerned with mitigating harmful consequences of modern technologies. The second camp contains organizations that exist to try to solve problems and promote welfare through methods that use digital technologies. I’ll call these two camps the ‘mitigators’ and the ‘promoters.’

There are a lot of good organizations and familiar names in both camps. The most famous in the mitigators would be the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but there’s also the Chaos Computer Club, the Open Rights Group, and the red-hot new research institute Data & Society. In the promoters camp the biggest name would undoubtedly be the Wikimedia Foundation, followed by Mozilla, and then a thousand other organizations, including my own alma mater mySociety. Furthermore, if you watch the excellent Silicon Valley TV series, you’ll know there’s an argument to be made for putting more or less all modern startups in the promoters camp, allegedly out to ‘make the world a better place.’ There’s also a case for putting Obama for America in the promoters camp, and all of ‘ICT4D’—that is, tech for international development.

For much of the last two decades tech-and-social-impact promoters and mitigators rose in lockstep, with a simultaneous blooming of organizations in both camps, often connected by people who had feet in both worlds. There are and were many cross-friendships and relationships.

Now, the balance is shifting, and I believe that we are heading towards an era in which the mitigation camp grows rapidly and where the promotion camp withers somewhat. There is only so much energy, talent, money, and media attention out there, and to my beady eye it definitely feels like the tide has turned towards mitigation for the last three years or so.

It’s pretty obvious why the mitigation camp would be growing. From Snowden to Trump, from drones to trolls, the digital world is giving us an immense number of reasons to be nervous, and a huge number of reasons to justify investment in research and activism. On the other hand, the promoters suffer from sitting alongside hugely successful private-sector digital businesses, and the miraculous products they give away, normally for free. They appear relatively small, and appear to be shrinking—Wikipedia traffic is down year after year; nobody expects Mozilla to be bigger in the future than it was in the past. And what was the last free and open data standard to really shape a whole product market? Probably podcasts, technically formalized in about the year 2000.

I don’t fully know what to think about the shift towards mitigators. They clearly, self-evidently deserve immense support and resources—regulating the internet giants is obviously going to be one of the big governmental projects of the 21st century, and reaching a new social contract with our security services is needed, too. Those two jobs are going to take at least fifty years and will consume entire careers.

I guess I’m just a little bit sad that after growing up in a world that was so excited about Linux, Wikipedia, TCP/IP, and other free and open public interest technologies of real scale, that the next phase of public interest development is going to be left primarily to the private sector. Or maybe that’s just the perspective of someone who lives in a country of permanent austerity—maybe in a few years we’ll just be able to import a world of good new public interest technologies from Canada or somewhere. Anyway, regardless of how I feel about it, the wind has definitely changed directions, so we’d all better set our sails accordingly.

  • When we went to the Minnesota state legislature with a funding proposal for Open Minnesota – -“promoting” civic tech and open government the legislators asked “what about privacy?” (We suggested that we needed our version of the Smart Chicago Collaborative but that we couldn’t expect local foundations to get it or fund it like in Chicago.) Of course we weren’t proposing that any private government data be released, but just post-Snowden the blood was in the water. As it turned out, while we had a state government budget surplus, the extra money went into economic development and not the government operations committee where our bill was assigned. Had we focused on open data and promoting job creating civic tech private sector start-ups rather than primarily government/education/civil society collaboration in the public interest we might have had a chance.

  • Wendy M. Grossman

    As I understand the Wikipedia stats, the readership that’s apparently falling is not actual readers but bots, crawlers, etc. If there *is* a real drop-off effect, it wouldn’t entirely surprise me because so many teachers tell kids that Wikipedia can’t be trusted. The shift to mobile and tablets has taken a lot of technological autonomy out of people’s hands – but there’s still a fair bit of excitment in maker spaces, etc. It seems to me natural that as a technology matures – and what we might call the “desktop internet” (Linux, Mozilla, etc.) is arguably mature. IMO this is a recurring cycle, and “promoters” will reappear, but around a different complex of technologies, probably 3D printing. I’m certainly happy to be out of the hype phase (if we are) where technology was supposed to solve every social problem because that was never going to work but it gave governments easy public proclamations. It’s very hard to be excited by technologies that have been in your life for 20+ years. It’s always the shiny, new thing…

    It would be good if we could convey to people the difference between “free” as in pay-with-data and “free” as in…


  • Edward Saperia

    It might also be because there are fewer skeptics, as technology has become more and more ingrained in our minute-to-minute existence.

  • Ken Soh

    Thank you very much Tom for sharing your insights. Your thought-provoking post is exactly what I have been looking for. =)